How To Prepare For A One-on-One Meeting As a Manager

Four steps to take when you've got a one-on-one meeting coming up.

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You’re not prepared. Or at least that’s what employees think when it comes to one-on-one meetings. In a recent survey we conducted of 125 managers and 45 employees, we found 35% of employees believe their manager is only “somewhat prepared” – and 15% of employees think their manager is “not prepared” or “not prepared at all.”

That’s almost half of employees thinking that their managers aren’t as prepared for one-on-one meetings as they could be.

Managers seem to agree. Sixteen percent of managers we surveyed said their biggest frustration with one-on-one meetings is they’re never sure how to prepare or what to ask.

Fortunately, preparing for a one-on-one meeting is neither hard nor time-consuming. Before your next one-on-one, here are the four things you can do (and each takes 10 minutes or less):

#1: Get up-to-speed.

You waste time when you’re not up-to-speed. When you walk into a one-on-one meeting not knowing what the person has been working on for the past month, you squander 10 - 15 minutes to get caught up on old information. That’s 10 - 15 minutes that could’ve been spent discovering and discussing new information. Instead, spend a few minutes getting up to speed before the meeting rather than during it. Specifically:

  • Review status updates ahead of time. You’ll save time by not rehashing “What’s the latest on X?” And you’ll better orient yourself on what the focus of the one-on-one meeting should be.
  • Revisit notes from the last one-on-one meeting. You’ll realize there’s an important topic you need to circle back on, or an action item you need to complete. These notes can also help inform the questions you want to ask for this upcoming meeting.

#2: Ask your direct report to create an agenda.

Ask the employee to create an agenda ahead of time with what might be on her mind. You can say or write something like: “Mind kicking-off the first draft of the agenda for our one-on-one meeting? I want to focus on what you want to talk about, first. And then I’m happy to take a pass and add anything else to it.”

By letting her take the lead and initiate the agenda, you demonstrate to her that it’s her priorities that you want to address first. She’s in the driver’s seat, not you.

Then, of course, you’ll want to review the agenda before the meeting, and offer any additions for what you want to talk about.

#3: Clearly define for yourself: What do you want to know?

Yes, you’re asking the employee to write the agenda – but you also want to think for yourself what you want to know. Is there a concern you have about this person’s ability to work well with others? Are you wondering if they feel challenged enough by the work itself? If nothing specific comes to mind, consider these four areas of focus for a one-on-one meeting:

  • Concerns and issues. What potential problems might be bubbling up that you don’t know about, but should?
  • Feedback about work performance. What does your direct report need to be doing differently? How can you improve your own management style?
  • Career direction. How can you help support this person progress toward their career goals? Are you both on the same page for what progress looks like?
  • Personal connection. What outside of work in their life is going on that you want to know more about?

Reflect on these four areas to generate ideas for questions you should be asking, or topics you think should be covered during the one-on-one meeting.

I’d recommend picking one or two of these focus areas, and then brainstorming at least 3 - 7 questions for each area. You may not ask all the questions (or any!), but they are helpful to have in your back pocket should the conversation lag or veer off-topic.

To help you get started, here are some examples for one-on-one meeting questions in each focus area:

Questions that uncover concerns / issues…

  • “When have you felt most motivated about the work you’ve been doing?”
  • “When have you felt bored in the past quarter?”
  • “Is anything holding you back from doing the best work you can do right now?”
  • “Is there any red tape you’d like to cut at the company?”

Questions that elicit feedback about work performance…

  • “Would you like more or less feedback on your work? Why/why not?”
  • “Would you like more or less direction from me? Why/why not?”
  • “What aspect of your job you would like more help or coaching?”
  • “What’s a recent situation you wish you handled differently? What would you change?”

Questions that help provide career direction…

  • “What have you been wanting to learn more of, get better at, and improve on?”
  • “What’s one thing we could do today to help you with your long term goals?”
  • “Is there an area outside your current role where you feel you could be contributing?”
  • “If you could design your ideal role in a company, what would it look like?”

Questions that foster a sense of personal connection…

  • “How’s life?”
  • “What have you been reading lately?”
  • “Been anywhere recently for the first time?”
  • “What have you been excited about lately?”

I always try to ask at least one question focused on personal connection, and use that question to open up the meeting. This helps break the ice at the beginning of your meeting, and builds rapport with your employee. Without this sense of rapport, your employee won’t feel comfortable divulging anything meaningful – nor will she find the conversation much fun.

For more ideas for questions to ask during a one-on-one meeting, you can visit here.

#4: Calibrate your mindset.

Take a minute to remind yourself: This meeting is not like other meetings. You aren’t running it. Your primary job is to absorb the information being shared with you, poke holes to figure out how an employee is actually feeling, let things marinate, and then figure out when you need to do. You shouldn’t be talking. You should be listening and scanning for the truth.

These four steps takes 15 minutes, maybe 30 minutes at most, to complete in total. That’s 15 minutes - 30 minutes of preparation that ensures your hour-long one-on-one meeting is not an hour wasted. Invest in preparing for your one-on-one to get the most out of this time together.

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